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Levelling up education and skills: a recipe for success?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 February 2022

Claire Crawford, Laura Outhwaite, Sam Sims and Gill Wyness.

It’s finally here: an answer to the question of what the government means by ‘levelling up’. On the education and skills front, it seems to involve some seriously ambitious targets: a massive increase in the percentage of children achieving the ‘expected’ level in reading, writing and maths at age 11 over the next eight years across all areas, with more than 50% rises needed to meet the target in most local authorities. Alongside these national targets, a set of 55 ‘Education Investment Areas’ – roughly the poorest performing third of local authorities in terms of primary and secondary school results – were identified, in which some new (and some re-announced) policies would be targeted.

It is good to have specific, measurable and stretching goals, but given the scale of ambition involved, there was very little detail of how we will actually get there – and no evidence of significant new resources to do it. Complex issues, like inequalities across the life course, require holistic solutions and joined up thinking across all aspects of the journey – things that simply cannot be delivered without appropriate funding. There was also little evidence of the embedding of new announcements within existing strategies – certainly in terms of the plans for educational technology, with the white paper championing the creation of a new online UK National Academy to support schools and children, without embedding this within the wider EdTech strategy.

There were some other glaring omissions as well . . .

Early years

“Potential is shaped from the very beginning of our lives, and all children and families need to be able to access high quality early years education, schools and support.” So began the ‘case for action’ underlying the pledge to ‘eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy’. The statement is correct: the best evidence we have, from both the UK and internationally, suggests that high quality early education benefits children – especially those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds – in both the short-term and the long-term.

But – aside from the reannouncement of funds previously identified in the spending review to expand Family Hubs, the ‘Start for Life’ programme and the ‘Supporting Families’ programme – that was the only mention of early years anywhere in the 332 page document. More time was spent discussing the Roman Empire than the early years sector. Despite pointing out that there are significant regional differences in children’s development by age 5 – differences that are dwarfed by the even larger gaps in development between those who are and are not eligible for free school meals at the same age (18 percentage points: 57% vs 74%) – no mention was made of the crucial role investment in early years could play in reducing these gaps. At a time when the percentage of 0-4 year olds attending early years settings has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels – with larger drops amongst those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and areas – as well as significant recruitment difficulties and funding challenges, this feels like a significant missed opportunity.

11-19 education

Perhaps the most eye-catching commitments were focused on schools and colleges, although not all of these were new announcements. The reintroduction of retention payments – “to help schools [in Education Investment Areas] with supply challenges to retain the best teachers in high-priority subjects” – was announced at the Conservative Party conference in 2021, and is a reincarnation of several previous versions of a similar policy. More on this below. We also reflect on the promise to “ensure that talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to a college, school sixth form or 16-19 academy, with a track record of progress on to leading universities”.

Teacher retention payments

The government is pledging an additional £3,000 (around 10% of a year’s salary) to early-career maths and science teachers in the 55 Education Investment Areas. (It is not clear yet whether this is per year or in-total.)

Will these retention payments be effective? That depends how we define effective. Similar policies have been shown to improve the retention of early-career teachers in the profession. If teachers can be retained for the first few years of their career, they are then much less likely to leave the profession prior to retirement, so the retention payments probably will increase the overall supply of science and maths teachers in England.

However, a recent systematic review suggests that incentives aimed at keeping teachers in specific schools or local areas are likely to be effective only as long as the policy is in place. It is possible that teachers will move away from the targeted areas when they no longer qualify for payments. Whether – or for how long – the policy will improve the supply of science and math teachers in these areas therefore depends on how long the policy is kept in place. It will also depend hugely on the size of the incentive: clarity over whether it is £3,000 per year across the early-career period, or £3,000 in total – either delivered in a single lump-sum or spread over a number of years – is needed before we can predict how effective this policy might be.

‘Elite sixth forms’

These sound like they could be grammar schools in all but name, given that the school admissions code allows sixth forms to select pupils on the basis of ability. While this might expand educational opportunities for a small number of high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is likely to widen inequalities within the areas more broadly. We have strong evidence from the areas of England which still operate large numbers of grammar schools that suggests these systems widen inequalities in attainment during school, in higher education and in subsequent earnings, because while they generally improve outcomes for those fortunate enough to attend the selective schools, they tend to worsen outcomes for those who miss out. The policy also seems somewhat at odds with the government’s recent shift in focus away from higher education and towards the long-neglected further education sector, almost a direct contrast to the aim of encouraging greater parity between academic and vocational routes. Why favour one and not the other here?

Higher education and skills

The continued focus on adult skills is, of course, welcome. Most of the announcements in the white paper are not new – although, to be fair, there was a skills white paper out last year. But many of the initiatives, while potentially promising, are quite ‘piecemeal’, targeting relatively small numbers of learners, and nowhere near enough to reverse the historical declines in either numbers of students or funding per head seen over the last decade. It’s also not clear to what extent some of the more specific initiatives – such as skills bootcamps – are evidence-based.

One new announcement is the Unit for Future Skills, which will champion a more data driven approach to identifying skills gaps. This has the potential to improve the ‘matching’ of workers and jobs, potentially leading to higher productivity in future. But they will have their work cut out for them, as we don’t know a whole lot about the skills people have (other than their qualifications), or which specific skills employers struggle to recruit or find difficult to train. We will watch this space with interest . . .

The role of the university sector – often lauded as an engine for regional growth – was limited to a few mentions here and there, although it sounds like it will benefit from increased funding for R&D.

Final thoughts

The white paper emphasises the importance of place in its version of levelling up. If successful, this means that the average difference in outcomes across areas may fall. But it is worth remembering that inequalities in outcomes, including education outcomes, tend to be larger within areas – between different groups – than across areas.

The education and skills policies outlined in the white paper make a reasonable attempt at targeting the benefits towards more disadvantaged individuals living in the Education Investment Areas. But of course there are plenty – indeed the majority – of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds living in other areas, whose outcomes are far lower than those of their better-off peers. We must ensure that the political focus on the levelling up agenda does not displace any of the much-needed support for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of where they live.

Photo by vsuydam via Creative Commons

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